Public film in the UK: BBC iPlayer and All 4 as digital public space

Freely available films on BBC iPlayer and All4 offer different worlds to the British taxpayer. Do we make the most of them? And what do they contribute to digital public space?

Publicly funded channels BBC and Channel 4 have developed sophisticated streaming platforms in recent years that compete with the likes of Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, particularly in terms of value for money. Like their bigger competitors, BBC iPlayer and All 4 offer diverse media content, especially award-winning TV shows. More over-looked are their film offerings which are much more diverse than one might imagine.

With both channels somewhat under threat – the BBC by ideological shifts at the centre of government and the closure of BBC 4, and Channel 4 by a consultation on privatisation – it is worth reflecting on the value of the publicly available film they offer in a market saturated by multiple subscription streaming platforms.

At the time of writing in late August, All 4 has a total of 57 films available to watch. With Film 4 being the production powerhouse that it is, you might expect this offering to be larger. However, it is diverse. Looking through this list, I’ve added a number of films to my own watch list: Oscar-winning Polish film, Ida (2014); Japanese drama, Shoplifters (2018); and dark comedy about Stalin, Red Monarch (1983).

BBC iPlayer has a more substantial film offering, with classic films such as Citizen Kane (1941); hits like Stan and Ollie (2018); and social realist dramas like Rosie (2018). Frustrated by too much choice on platforms like Netflix, my partner and I were happy to finally watch Oscar Best Picture winner Green Book (2018) on BBC iPlayer this weekend.

In trying to find a suitable to watch on these public platforms, we were struck by the quality of films on offer. Not only award-winning or popular films, but ones that were socially valuable – films that might broaden people’s horizons beyond Hollywood, whilst engaging them in a challenging topic. Films about homelessness like Hector (2015) and Rosie (2018) on BBC iPlayer; or British social history such as Peterloo (2018) on All 4; documentaries like I Am Greta (2020) on BBC iPlayer.

The BBC, and to some extent Channel 4, through their streaming platforms are digital public spaces – and freely available, socially valuable films are an important part of that. Film plays a vital role in educating people, introducing them to worlds and experiences beyond their own. Film is a site of encounter, and in a public space like the BBC and Channel 4, this encounter can be socially positive, and transformative. Digital public space should be free and accessible to everyone – and that includes online film, particularly in an era dominated by the growing power of Amazon and Disney.

BBC iPlayer and All 4 will be increasingly important in the future of digital public space. We must protect them from ideological interference and strive to improve them.

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